The California Mission Walkers have plans to hike a 58-mile section of the California Missions Trail this fall, beginning October 20 at Mission Santa Barbara and ending October 25 at La Purisima Mission State Historic Park in Lompoc. Stretching over 600 miles, the entire trail roughly traces El Camino Real.
The pilgrimage itself is nicknamed the California Camino after the Camino de Santiago, a centuries-old network of trails in Spain that terminates at Santiago de Compostela, where Saint James’s remains are said to be buried.
Ronald “Butch” Briery was one of the founders of the California Mission Walkers. After completing the Camino de Santiago, Briery was inspired to complete the California route, something practically no one had done for over a hundred years. In 2011, he trail-blazed from south to north, which is the most common direction to walk it, he said. “You’re mostly walking in time order, starting at the oldest mission, Mission San Diego de Alcalá, and ending at the newest, Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma,” he said.
The trek involves walking along the beach, on bike paths, through canyons, on road shoulders, and alongside railroad tracks. But that’s changing. “We’re making efforts to improve the experience of walking the California Missions Trail,” said Mark Wilkinson, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Trails Council, including the installation of better markers.
Jill Ballard is leading this year’s group. She said people make the journey for all sorts of reasons — a love for history, nature, camaraderie, and the physical challenge. People also walk for religious or spiritual reasons, to honor the memories of loved ones, or to prepare for the Camino de Santiago.
The popularity of these kinds of long walks is trending upward, Ballard said. There were about 200 people in the group when she joined, and there are around 900 now. Nearly 100 have walked to multiple missions, and about half that many have walked to all 21.
Like Camino de Santiago pilgrims, California Camino walkers receive a stamp in their pilgrim passport at each mission along the route. Unlike in Spain, however, the California missions don’t often offer meals and beds to pilgrims. Instead, California walkers camp, share rooms in budget hotels, or stay with locals. “While it may not be as well-known, we’ve learned over the years that the California Camino provides, too,” Ballard said.